A-Roid and the Ink-Stained Kvetches

Thank God Alex Rodriguez just copped to using steroids. I was beginning to think this recession story had dragged on for too long.

Along with his proclivity for strippers, the slum apartments he owns in Florida, and his belief that Madonna is his “soul mate,” Rodriguez is merely showing he’s in lockstep with the heartwarming judgment exercised by this nation over the past decade. What’s next – buying some Petco franchises with Michael Vick?

Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez misses the signs.

Yankee slugger Alex Rodriguez misses the sign.

Despite confessing his sins to ESPN, A-Rod still portrayed himself as the victim. He claimed he turned to performance enhancers because he was under pressure to perform to the level of his record contract he signed with the Texas Rangers in 2000. He also said he stopped taking them shortly before he was traded to the Yankees – coincidentally at almost the same time Major League baseball began imposing penalties for steroids use.

Hmm. Would A-Rod’s move from the backwater of Arlington, Tex. to the New York media scrum and the modest expectations of George Steinbrenner permit him to shed his self-doubt? I wonder if his ex-wife buys that story.

But I digress. What really matters here are the hypocritical harrumphs made by the nation’s sportswriters over the past five years, since Major League Baseball decided to impose penalties for steroid use.
The scribes have stayed on an incessant message: baseball is forever tainted by the steroid scandal. It has been systematically destroying itself.

Very rarely have the writers let this inconvenient fact get in the way: overall Major League baseball attendance has set new records over the past five seasons. MLB also rakes in another $65 million a year just from people willing to pay to watch or listen to games over the Internet, making it one of the few successful providers of paid media content. Here is a case study on on how the news business could run its web operations.

But the consensus is that of Yahoo! national baseball columnist Jeff Passan, who actually acknowledged the MLB numbers, then promptly dismissed them. “Revenues and attendance don’t make a renaissance,” he grumbled. This is an extraordinary denial of reality. Major League Baseball is a business, and as distasteful as some of its employees are, it’s also been wildly successful in servicing its customer base. Passan and his colleagues won’t even deign to do likewise.

The “big picture” painted by the media about steroids damaging the game is grotesquely inaccurate. The fans care neither about steroids in baseball nor what the media has to say about it. The ink-stained kvetches’ obstinacy in the face of these facts might be condemned in the Columbia Journalism Review if it wasn’t expending all its column inches trying to figure out why newspapers are going bust.

At least Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Dwyre still cares. He has employed the shrillest voice since the A-Rod news broke. Dwyre also edited the Times’s sports pages between 1981 and 2006.

“The ideal response is that the consumer takes all this as the final straw, stops going to games and watching on TV and sends Major League Baseball into the same economic black hole currently occupied by the rest of the country,” he shrieked about the A-Rod scandal. Oh, and then he got huffy.

Former L.A. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre.

Shrieker-in-Chief: Former L.A. Times sports editor Bill Dwyre.

Dwyre demanded 90-day suspensions for all the players who tested positive for steroids in 2003. He also wanted to “place an asterisk on the plaque of any enhancement-drug user who gets in” the Baseball Hall of Fame. Would that include all the 1950s and 60s-era players who popped pep pills? Or every Prohibition-era player who took a slug before they took the field? You were an editor at a major newspaper, Bill. Shouldn’t you insist on clarity? Many of the headlines that were published when you ran the Times’s sports pages were quite clear:

“64! 65! Sosa ties McGwire with two homers.” (Sept. 24, 1998).
“Whack! Baseball’s flagging image is…outta here!” (Sept. 5, 1998).
“McGwire’s blast could be right out of Hollywood.” (Sept. 26, 1998).
“In Summer of 62, baseball back as national pastime.” (Sept. 11, 1998).

The Times and every other print outlet lionized Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire for what turned out to be a home run race on, er, steroids. The pair were single-handedly credited with reviving the game after the disastrous 1994 strike.
Indeed, when reports surfaced that McGwire had been taking the steroid gateway drug androstenedione – which had already been banned by the National Football League and the International Olympic Committee – the sportswriters all but brushed it aside. That attitude was briefly in line with reality: only the rare prodigy who can hit or pitch a 95-mph fastball on the hands will succeed in professional baseball. Steroids are of no help at all with that.

Only when McGwire and his colleagues were made to squirm in front of the House Committee for Government Oversight and Reform – the spring training site for ambitious politicians – did the media wag its collective finger. However, the huge ongoing success MLB has had in marketing itself suggests that people like Dwyre are awfully lonely in this assertion.

For good or ill, A-Roid will continue to draw crowds. They may even come in greater numbers than before, particularly as he inches closer to breaking the all-time home run record. Can the same be said for the dwindling number of people paid to watch him?

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